- Theater of the Precariat:Staging Precarity in Alexander Zeldin's Love
We get a lot of dry economic theory. There are vast numbers of people called "the working poor." Their lives are dominated by one feeling: precarity. I wanted to look at what it means to live in that position: temporary solutions and temporary lives.Alexander Zeldin1
The precariat populates the contemporary British stage, featured in prominent playhouses such as the Royal Court Theatre, the National Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company's Swan Theatre. Many new and significant works of British theater have focused on staging and debating, giving bodies, faces, words, voices, and emotional lives to this new social group, collective, or class-in-the-making. They have participated in imagining the contours of an identity for this heterogeneous entity and possibly―as political theater―opened more people's eyes to the intolerable living conditions experienced by those forced to inhabit an insecure state of precarity. Showing vulnerable and insecure bodies and minds onstage reveals how everyday life may feel to specifically situated and embodied members of the precariat by exposing the audience to experiences drenched in stress, anxiety, fear, and anger. This essay joins work by Marissia Fragkou and Jen Harvie to offer a foray into this new tendency in [End Page 335] contemporary British theater and asks what this shift may tell us about what it means and how it feels to live as a member of the precariat.
We propose the concept of "theater of the precariat" as a collective phrase for a group of new dramatic works―along similar lines as Martin Esslin's concept of "theater of the absurd," which he describes as a "working hypothesis" meant "to make certain fundamental traits which seem to be present in the works of a number of dramatists accessible to discussion by tracing features they have in common" (10). The plays constituting the theater of the precariat most obviously share thematic features and a concern with characters who belong to the precariat. They are also marked by an interest in developing different techniques for activating and engaging with the audience's sense of ethics, both indirectly by staging an everyday lifeworld that is insecure or falling apart and more directly by addressing the audience as audience, by interacting physically with the audience through theater space and dramaturgy. Last, some of the more experimental plays conceive of artistic creation and performance as a much more collaborative process than traditional theater does―often in conscious opposition to the individualism and isolation of neoliberal societies. A prime example of this collaborative impulse is Alexander Zeldin's practice of devising with the company and creating a supportive community around those involved in the production.
In other words, the theater of the precariat is not the product of one playwright's ambitions, as in Bertolt Brecht's "epic theatre," Antonin Artaud's "theatre of cruelty," or Augusto Boal's "theatre of the oppressed." These more theoretically conceived dramatic projects share traits and concerns with the theater of the precariat, mainly over activating and engaging the audience directly and indirectly through performative and compositional strategies and calling attention to social injustices and suffering. Nevertheless, the theater of the precariat distinguishes itself as political theater from these predecessors by not offering strong explanations or solutions to the specific problems it engages beyond reminding the audience of an ethical obligation to care for the precarious other.
This essay focuses on the theater of the precariat's staging of precarious subjects and thinks about the potential political and ethical [End Page 336] effects of these performances in relation to the audience, which, as Peter Handke's "characters acknowledge in Offending the Audience . . . provides the theatre event with its rationale" (Freshwater 2). The essay proceeds by outlining the main theories of precarity and the precariat in the social sciences, philosophy, and critical theory. It goes on to describe representations of the precariat in four works of contemporary British drama, drawing out shared themes and concerns. We proceed to Zeldin's recent play Love (2016) to illustrate how the interest in precarity manifests itself on thematic, formal, and...